Volume 17 • Issue 17 | SEPTEMBER 17 - 23, 2004

Friends recall hoop star who died in B.P.C.

By Nancy Reardon

After Sept. 11, 2001, Damian Constable and his friends could not play on their favorite basketball court due to damage. They rode around the city looking for games at other courts, but it wasn’t the same.

“We decided that we had to get the guys together and go back,” said Steve Olson, a member of the basketball team. “It was very healing to return to that court after 9/11.”

Constable, Olson, Marko Menendez, Frank Padilla, Michael Kozek and Odin Erickson played together as the Gran Marnier team on the south side of the Rockefeller Park courts every week for years. They were known as the team to beat, and this summer, they won the Basketball City Monday night league competition.

Two weeks ago, the basketball team looked once again to their favorite court for healing. This time, they played together to honor the team’s star player.

Constable, 26, died suddenly of heart failure on Aug. 28 while practicing alone on the court, which friends say was rare.

“We never played by ourselves,” said Olson. “We always played together.”

Constable, who taught fifth grade at a public school in Brooklyn, lived in Lower Manhattan on St. James Pl.

During the week after his death, the team didn’t know if it would be able to return to Rockefeller Park, but the next weekend, Menendez went to visit the court.

“Damian wouldn’t have wanted it this way,” Menendez said of not playing. “I knew I didn’t want to play anywhere else.” He called Olson at his apartment.

Olson recalled that his wife, who had taken the call, just looked at him and said, “Go play.”

The friendships of the Gran Marnier team had been forged on the basketball court, and now, they are honoring their friend the best way they know how — by continuing the game.

Constable was a tremendous athlete who was very close to going pro. A friend and agent, Joe Charles, got him a spot on the Pro Player Combine team in Rochester, N.Y. this summer, which is an opportunity for coaches and scouts to look at players with professional potential. Constable played extremely well and was preparing to try out for a professional basketball team in Italy this month.

At less than six feet tall, Constable had been working hard to transition from shooting guard to point guard for competitive professional play.

“He had been playing harder this summer than he had ever played,” said Constable. “He stopped drinking, changed his diet, and played five times a week, if not every day.”

Constable’s mother, Leila Constable, has started research on sudden heart failure in healthy, young men with the hope of raising awareness. In an e-mail message, she said it was too painful to comment on her son’s death. This Thursday, Sept. 23, Constable will be remembered during a fundraiser walk for the American Heart Association. The walk starts at 6:30 p.m. on Murray St. in Battery Park City and ends at the Esplanade Plaza.

More than 200 of his co-workers at Citi Habitat, a real estate company in Manhattan that is sponsoring the walk, will participate and wear buttons in his memory, said Matt Van Damm of Citi Habitat. Co-workers and friends have started a collection for Constable’s mother, and the company has pledged to match every dollar collected, said Van Damm.

The following weekend, the Gran Marnier team will hold a more solemn, private event. They plan to meet at their court with other players and friends. Some of them will participate in a memorial sail on Olson’s boat, while a group stays behind to play. When the boat is facing the courts, both groups will pause. It will be a moment to honor two of Constable’s passions: basketball and sailing.

Olson said that the Gran Marnier team and Constable had an ability to inspire other players. “We always wanted to show up as a team because it raised the level of play and made everyone work harder.”

The team plans to establish a scholarship fund in Constable’s name to inspire that same degree of passion and determination in talented inner-city youths. Olson said that Constable loved kids and volunteering to work with them.

At 26, Olson said Constable displayed an unusual degree of maturity mixed with earnestness. “He was an old soul, but he saw the world through child-like eyes.”

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